The Ideal of School

The Ideal of School

by David A. Beardsley

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Socrates:I suspect, as indeed you seem to think yourself, that you are in labor–great with some conception.  Come then to me, who am a midwife’s son and myself a midwife, and do your best to answer the questions which I will ask you.  Plato, Theatetus

In this episode, we’ll take a look at some of the philosophical movements that have bloomed over the centuries in the Western tradition, as well as some of the practices they developed to help students internalize their teachings.  A point I’d like to make early and often is that the way philosophy is studied today is very different from the way it was studied in antiquity when many of these schools were founded.  They were not so much “schools of thought” as “schools of being,” where like-minded people would come together to share good company and partake in a largely oral tradition.  They recognize the importance of making philosophy a part of one’s daily life, as well as speaking about it from the heart–factors that are missing when it is only read.  The practices that were given to students took philosophy out of the realm of the mind only, and were designed to bring them into the direct experience of the Good–an experience of consciousness and bliss.  It is quite different from the way philosophy is “studied” today, now that it has become the province of the professors.  As Pierre Hadot says in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life:

Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living.  By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.

It is unfortunate that many in the West today are unaware of their own philosophical heritage; a tradition which is not explicitly religious, but which offers practical ways for seeing and doing away with the limitations imposed on us by our bodies and minds.   The “love of wisdom” practiced at these schools was not the love of trying to make everyone else feel intellectually inferior to you, which is all too often the case with the philosophical establishment today.  As with Eastern traditions, the original schools had the goal of realizing that each of us has within us the infinite source of good, of love, of beauty, of knowledge, of our own consciousness.  And also as with Eastern traditions, the way to do this is to overcome the limitations and illusions of ego; ego not in the Freudian sense of course, but that part of us that works to keep us partial, not universal.  It is the sphincter on the soul.

When we speak of tradition though, it’s important to point out that this is not intended to revive some historical form of school or practices, or to claim any superiority of the Western approach.  The wisdom that was sought in these schools is still the same today: the Good does not change.  But schools and teachers have come and gone, as have ways of approaching and describing the Good.  Things change over time–that’s what causes time–but the Ideal is eternally present.  There are schools today that continue this tradition.  (Full disclosure: I am a student at the School of Practical Philosophy.  Full disclaimer: the views presented here do not necessarily represent those of the School.)

It’s worth spending a few minutes looking at the prevailing view of the human condition around the time of 5th century BC Greece when many of these schools were founded.  Traditionally Greek gods, or theoi, were not seen as morally superior beings in the way that we believe today that God is–or should be.  The Greek pantheon (“all the gods”) were pretty much just super-humans, very accomplished in one specialized area, but also driven by human-like passions of lust, anger, egotism and vengeance; kind of like high school but with life-and-death powers.  Drawing on the Theogony (“Birth of the gods”) of Hesiod, many Greeks believed that this was the realm in which real life was played out; that the gods were actually indifferent to humans, and the best they could do was to appease the gods and keep from being collateral damage as they warred among themselves, like bystanders when Godzilla fights Gotengo.

It’s also significant that the Greeks of this time did not have an experience comparable to our church or synagogue where people go to worship and be educated about the deities.  People knew the stories of the gods from childhood, and would often have small shrines in their homes where they would make supplications to a particular god.  And they did have festivals in honor of certain gods, such as the Pan-Athenaea in Athens which honored its namesake goddess, and which involved the ritual sacrifice and barbecuing of large mammals.  But the element of teaching and moral guidance was lacking; it was essentially a fear-based system (as many have always been).  This was a need that the philosophical schools would fill.

At this same time, there was an alternate view among some thinkers, largely coming from outside Greece proper, which described one transcendent force as the source for all the apparently separate phenomena we experience.  This was called by Anaximander apeiron, “without boundaries, limitless,” or by Plato, eidos, the “Ideal,” or agathon, the “Good.”  For Plato, this is the realm of causes, and the world we experience through the senses is just a shadow or reflection of it.  Most other schools supported this basic distinction of two realms in which we exist:

  1. Sensible or visible: to “…include the animals which we see, and everything that grows or is made.” (The Republic)

  2. Intellectual or Ideal: the nonvisible world of causes, knowledge and emotions.

It follows from this that we can learn to inhabit the intellectual world and that we, not the gods, are responsible for the events in our lives, or at least our reactions to them.  These reactions can be governed by learning to see our habitual desires, fears, worries, expectations, judgments, anger and guilt, and then letting them go.  Consciously or not, we choose our lives at each moment by where we choose to give our attention.  The teaching that these schools have in common is in learning to direct our attention away from those things that limit us, and toward those things that open us up to the universal.  The practices given are how we learn to operate in the sphere of the intellect, which includes the emotions or “passions.”  Just as techne is knowledge that allows us to work and create in the physical world, there is knowledge that allows us to perfect skills in the nonvisible realm as well.  Carpenters or sculptors learn to exercise their craft by actually practicing it, and this is how we learn to perfect ourselves in the intellectual realm.

The practices designed to help us navigate the invisible world are called askesis.  It is the origin of our word “ascetic,” which has taken on unfavorable connotations of total renunciation, but originally it just meant “practices” or “exercises” designed to help students remember the nonvisible world, such as the practice given by Plato in the Phaedo  of “learning to die.”  As Werner Jaeger says in Paideia, vol II:

…the philosopher’s “practice” (his askesis), his surrender of his whole life to knowledge and to permanent concentration, was not meant by Plato as a symbol of a devoted but one-sided life.  Because of the hugely preponderant importance  which it gives to man’s spiritual side over his corporeal, it is the most natural kind of life.  The man who has accustomed his soul to leave his body in the life, and has thereby become sure of the eternity which he carries in his spirit, has lost all fear of death.  In Phaedo, the soul of Socrates, like the swan of Apollo, soars up into the fields of pure Being before it leaves his body.  (p. 173)

The existence of spiritual schools fills the same need as traditional schools that teach techne: the transmission of learning from those more advanced to those who are learning.  Just as Athenian youth flocked to the Sophists who promised to teach them how to get their own way through the study of rhetoric, others flocked to teachers like Socrates who taught that the way to true happiness was by learning to see and let go of those things that make us unhappy.  But this is not meant to be just a self-centered happiness–it comes from the realization that bliss is in the nature of the Limitless (how could it be otherwise?), and that to remember ourselves as limitless is to partake of that bliss.  It also relied on the presence of a teacher who had realized these changes in himself (it usually was a him), and could oversee the process in others.  To quote Jaeger again from Paideia:

The appearance of such schools is a historical fact of immense importance, which even to-day essentially affects and conditions the relation between individual and society.  Behind the school or the little community there always stands an intellectual personality, who is the active force, who speaks with the authority of his own deep knowledge and who gathers around him associates with the same attitude to life.  (p. 273)

The fact that this kind of teaching relies on speech and the presence of a teacher, and cannot just be communicated through reading and writing alone, is evidenced by a famous passage from a work by Plato called the 7th letter.

Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries–that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.  (Jowett translation)

(In my own defense, I don’t claim “any real skill in the matter.”  But it is important that the message of the Good be restated frequently so it is not lost under the avalanche of “information” and distractions that threaten us every day.)

With academic philosophy, the practical side was lost.  There is a famous saying to the effect that “Today we have professors of philosophy, but no philosophers.”  When I tell you this was said by Henry David Thoreau in 1854, you’ll realize the problem has been with us for a while.  When you take Philosophy 101 today there is no assignment to learn to love: it is all in the mind.  Again, this is not the way it was in ancient philosophical schools.  Pierre Hadot:

In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory–much less in the exegesis of texts, but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence.  This philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being.  It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it.  It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.  (p. 83)

Also in the words of Thoreau: To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically. (Walden, 1854)

Some Early Philosophical Schools

The first known example of a philosophical school was that of Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BC and who was born on the island of Samos in the eastern Mediterranean, which would become a hotbed of alternate thought throughout the next few centuries.  He founded a community in the Greek colony of Croton on the southern tip of Italy, which carried out various practices as well as research and experiments into music, mathematics and other subjects.  Unfortunately not much is reliably known about Pythagoras or the school–even if he in fact discovered the famous theorem that bears his name.  It seems that there were some students who lived there communally (mathematikoi), while others (akousmatikoi) maintained their lives in the world and came only for lectures or other activities.   Many of the sayings attributed to Pythagora may have been written by his followers and merged together.  There is the further complication that his followers were supposedly sworn to secrecy about the teachings they received. Iamblichus, (c. 245-c. 325), in his obviously much later work On the Pythagorean Life, says:

…they adopted Pythagoras’ law of reserve, in an arcane manner concealing divine mysteries from the uninitiated, obscuring their writings and mutual conversations.  The result is that they who present these symbols without unfolding their meaning by a suitable exposition, run the danger of exposing them to the charge of being ridiculous and inane, trifling and garrulous.  

Most accounts do however credit them with discovering the role of mathematics in the study of beauty and the nature of the sensible world.  Indeed the Greek word μάθημα, “mathema,” means “knowledge” or “learning,” and the realm of numbers serves as a prime example of the distinction between the intellectual and visible worlds.  Numbers themselves are timeless, universal, perfect, but they can be used in combinations for temporary practical purposes.  And they were seen by Pythagoreans to underlie other phenomena in the sensible world, primarily music.  Pythagoras is said to have realized that different musical pitches were the result of different vibrational frequencies, which were the result of mathematical relationships, for example that a difference of an octave is a ratio of 1:2.  You and I might see this as an interesting curiosity, since we do not share Pythagoras’ gift for synopsis (“to see together”).  But he saw that it was not an isolated fact, but a manifestation of numbers in the abstract.  In The Greeks, H. D. F. Kitto says:

To the completely unmathematical mind it still seems a miracle of coincidence that what the ear accepts as the same note an octave higher is produced by a string exactly half as long–the simplest case of a whole series of ratios which are also musical intervals.  In this the Greek mind saw much more that a coincidence, and much more than an interesting fact in physics.  The Greek mind (as we should put it) was given to arguing from analogy, to leaping across chasms, the real reason for this being his assumption the the whole universe, or Nature, is a unity–the physical, the moral and the religious universe together.  (p. 192)

Numbers are infinite, but the ultimate equation is 1=1.

For the same reasons given above, we do not know much about any exercises given to students of Pythagoras, and out of context they would no doubt seem “trifling and inane.”  However, a couple of examples are given by Iamblicus that would seem to make sense, given their consistency with what else is known.

One, the practice of beauty, is a precursor to one we will see again in Plato:

Pythagoras conceived that the first attention that should be given to men should be addressed to the senses, as when one perceives beautiful figures and forms, or hears beautiful rhythms and melodies.  Consequently he laid down that the first erudition was that which subsists through music’s melodies and rhythms, and from these he obtained remedies of human manners and passions, and restored pristine harmony of the faculties of the soul. (p. 20)

In another exercise, we see the development of memory by remembering the previous day’s activities.  This also promotes the “examined life;” learning to see one’s life  from the point of view of a detached observer rather than being totally immersed in and identified with it.

This was their method of recalling what they daily heard.  No Pythagorean rose from his bed until he had first recollected the transactions of the day before; and he accomplished this by endeavoring to remember what he first said, or heard, or ordered done by his domestics before rising, or what was the second or third thing he had said, heard, or commanded.  The same method was employed for the remainder of the day.  (…)  Thus they made it a point to exercise their memories systematically, considering that the ability of remembering was most important for experience, science, and wisdom.  (p. 30)

But perhaps more important than any individual teaching or practice was the establishment of the idea of a school itself; a place where people who were drawn to study of the inner world could come and find their own connection to the unity and to others engaged in the same search.  It served as a model for all the schools that came after.  From Paideia:

Of course there have always been teachers and pupils.  But it would be a historical anachronism to imagine that there was anything like a Platonic school among the pre-Socratic philosophers.  Its only prototype was the Pythagorean order in southern Italy.  Since Plato founded the Academy immediately after returning from his first tour among the western Greeks, during which he had been closely associated with the Pythagoreans, it would seem that the two institutions were connected.  (p. 274)

As indicated, Plato’s own school was founded after his ill-fated trip to Italy, probably about 387 BC.  It took its name from the Ἀκαδήμεια, “Hekedemia,” the area outside Athens where the classes were held, which also gives our word “academia.”  It is likely that it started as informal meetings among Plato and his friends, and evolved into more formal courses of study.  It was unique in that it admitted slaves and women at a time when neither had very many rights at all in Athenian society.  But Plato’s teaching was of the soul, where everyone is equal.  As with the Pythagoreans, he placed an emphasis on the study of numbers and geometry–over the door was the inscription “A degree in mathematics is required.”  But also as with the Pythagoreans, we don’t know what form the instruction took.  The Academy continued more or less intact until after  the Roman conquest, when it seems to have succumbed to factionalism and a deviation from Plato’s original teaching, closing down in 83 BC.  It was revived in 410 AD, teaching neo-Platonism until it was shut down along with all other “pagan” schools by the Eastern Emperor Justinian in 529 AD.  Another school, which in a sense grew out of the Academy, was the Lyceum, founded by Plato’s student Aristotle.  Aristotle, who was the tutor of Alexander the Great, had more of a focus on politics and the material world, and other than espousing a system of ethics, the Lyceum did not aspire to knowledge of the Good.  Aristotle was and continues to be the “patron saint” of the academicians, who attempt to reduce all things to a size that can be comprehended by the analytical mind.

It should be mentioned that there were other disciples of Socrates who claimed his mantle after his death and founded schools, or at least movements, with varying degrees of fidelity to his teaching.  Among these were Euclid of Megara who figures in the dialogue Theatetus and who is mentioned as being present at Socrates’ death in Phaedo.  He founded a school in Megara whose teaching seems to have adhered closely to that of Plato and Socrates.

Another was Antisthenes, founder of a movement that would come to be known as Cynicism, which not many today would associate with a spiritual discipline. The word has come to mean someone who is jaded about things in general, especially peoples’ professed good motives.  It is really an “anti-school,” imitating Socrates’ lack of structure and emphasis on a lifestyle of simplicity and virtue opposed to the pursuit of material goods and honors.  They emphasized “virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire.”  The word “cynic,” pronounced “kynik” in Greek, is related to the word for dog (canine), and it’s likely that it was first used to insult the cynics, but like the word “freak” it came to be embraced by them.  (If you are a dog lover, you probably don’t think of it as an insult.)   Its adherents generally saw it as a practice of presence, of being fully attentive to the moment and what was happening in it.

As was the case with Socrates, Cynics did not write down their beliefs, or even seem to have a consistent doctrine.  It was more a way of life, and they did not have, or seem to want, a Plato to record it for posterity.  Cynicism changed its character with later practitioners, notably Diogenes, who were noted for the rejection of convention–think hippies in the sixties.  The rejection of societal values became more an end to itself, rather than a means toward a more simple lifestyle.  Many were voluntarily homeless, living in the streets, some would have sex in public, as a way of showing their disdain for the conventional values of wealth, fame, and status.

It is generally considered however that Cynicism was the chief influence on a school that would become the dominant force in philosophy for several hundred years: Stoicism.  It took its name from the shaded porticos where the students would meet, called stoas in Greek, and was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the 3d century BC, about a hundred years after the Academy.  It was a very popular school and lasted well into the Roman era; in fact one of its most famous adherents was the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180).  It speaks to the kind of spiritual democracy these schools observed, that another of its main proponents was Epictetus (55-135), born a slave but who worked to buy his own freedom, and then gained respect as a teacher of Stoic principles.  So you have an emperor and a slave but who are equals when it comes to wisdom.  The connotations attached to the word Stoicism have actually stayed fairly constant and accurate over the years, implying a calm acceptance of whatever events present themselves without thinking of them as good or bad; not reacting with pleasure or with anger.Another school that got its start around the same time is Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus (341-270 BC).  His school was called the Garden, because classes were held in the garden of his home in Athens.  This is another school that is difficult to assess clearly, given the accretions it’s gathered.  Epicurus taught that the goal was to obtain happiness and peace of mind by concentrating on the pleasurable and avoiding the painful.  Over the years this had come to mean a kind of hedonism and high life that I don’t think Epicurus intended.  For example, Pierre Hadot says of the school, The supreme pleasure was contemplating the infinity of the universe, and the majesty of the gods.  (p. 124)

These are some of the major schools that were established in ancient times, but it’s also worth pointing out that whenever these ideas are revived throughout history, it seems that people feel the need to communicate them in a school setting.  In third century Rome, Plotinus (ca. 204/5–270) revived the teachings of Plato and also established a school, which attracted many followers, among them the Emperor Gallienus.  Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) in renaissance Florence, founded his own Academy which studied the works of Plato, Hermes, and Plotinus, and reenacted some of the dialogues such as the Symposium.  In 19th century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his colleagues would gather together in what was called the Transcendental Club, and whose history is best recounted in Philip F. Gura’s American Transcendentalism.  However, its structure was more like that of a symposium rather than a school, and they did not offer practices.  Robert Richardson describes it this way: The club was a forum for new ideas, a clearinghouse, full of yeast and ferment, informal, open-ended, far from the usual exclusive social clique conveyed by the word club. (p. 246)

Some Early Philosophical Exercises

Turning now to the different practices, again, we don’t know exactly what practices were given to the students, since many practices were not written down or were lost, and many don’t seem sensible when detached from their teaching.  But we can make some reasonable guesses about their nature.   One of the consistent teachings in these schools was that humans are filled with dangerous “passions,” such as anger, jealousy, desires and fear, as well as false and limiting ideas about ourselves, which are the source of our suffering.  (In another example of the devaluation of words, the Greek word for “not suffering” is  ἀπάθεια, “apatheia,” now meaning “apathy.”) These passions are tools used by the ego, whose main job is to keep us from realizing our true nature.  Our real nature–the Ideal–is Truth, Consciousness and Bliss.  But we settle for facts, thinking and pleasure.  The practices given were to help us see the workings of the ego and overcome them.  They help us see, as Plato would say, the distinction between what we have and what we are.

So philosophy as practiced in these different schools had different methodologies, but a common aim. Hadot again:

All schools agree that man, before his philosophical conversion is in a state of unhappy disquiet.  Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself.  All schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state.  He can accede to genuine life, improve himself, transform himself, and attain a state of perfection.  It is precisely for this that spiritual exercises were intended. (p.102)

It should go without saying that these practices are not ancient artifacts to be read about, but universals that can be used by anyone any time.  However, I would caution that there are allusions to advanced practices such as meditation and contemplation that are best done under the guidance of a spiritual teacher in a school environment.  These practices are not just about making you more relaxed and lowering your blood pressure: they are about μετάνόος, metanous, going “beyond the mind,” a practice that should not be undertaken without someone who has effected this kind of transformation.

One of the simplest practices is to replace the continuous chatter of the mechanical mind with ideas that are to be deliberately remembered and repeated.  This could sometimes be a single word, or a short phrase, and is why many of the ancient writers chose the form of short epigrams for their writing rather than expositions or dialectic.  Students could easily learn them, and repeat them consciously, especially at times when circumstances could tend to arouse anger, jealousy or some other “passion.”  There are, for example, some which supposedly come from the Pythagorean tradition, although compiled much later by various authors.  In his excellent anthology The Golden Chain, Algis Uzdavinys says this about them:

The Pythagorean Sentences of Sextus and those collected by Iamblichus and Stobaeus in some respects stand close to the genre of so-called wisdom literature current in the ancient Near East and Egypt.  The tradition of wise “sentences” (gnomai) was, however, also prevalent in the Hellenic world.  But while Pythagorean “symbols” (sumbola) resemble ancient esoteric riddles, the Pythagorean maxims, or sentences, are pithy sayings of metaphysical and ethical doctrines, which serve as instruction, advice, and exhortation–particularly suitable for usage in a school context.  (p. 37)

Some examples, taken from The Golden Chain:

    God is a light incapable of receiving its opposite.

    Such as you wish your neighbor to be to you, such be also to your neighbors.

    Use lying as poison.

    It is not death, but a bad life, which destroys the soul.

    If you knew him by whom you were made, you would know yourself.

    To use many words in speaking of God obscures the subject.

And one from the Stoic tradition:

    The gods are not to be feared,

    Death is not to be dreaded,

    What is good is easy to acquire,

    What is bad is easy to bear.

A practice that was probably used in Plato’s Academy, based on principles found in the dialogue called Phaedo, would be the practice of learning to die.  It is based on the premise that there is a part of us–actually the whole of us–that is immortal, that does not perish with the body.  This is a very positive outlook, and so the practice of death is not something morbid or depressing.  It is simply recognizing the distinction between the temporal and the eternal, the sensible and the intelligible.   From the Phaedo:  

…the truth is much rather this—if it (the soul) departs pure, dragging with it nothing of the body, because it never willingly associated with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself into itself alone, since this has always been its constant study—but this means nothing else than that it pursued philosophy rightly and really practiced being in a state of death: or is not this the practice of death?”

And a quote from Seneca (4BC-65AD), a Stoic, shows how widely this practice penetrated other schools:

…Epicurus will oblige me with the following saying: ‘Rehearse death’, or–the idea may come across to us rather more satisfactorily if put in this form–’It is a very good thing to familiarize oneself with death.’  You may possibly think it unnecessary to learn something which you will only have to put into practice once.  That is the very reason why we ought to be practicing it.  We must needs continually study a thing if we are not in a position to test whether we know it.  ‘Rehearse death.’  To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom.  A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. (p. 72)

It’s also practice in the death of slavery to the ego, the mental construct we all have that keeps us limited and in the thrall of these passions.  It is to realize that at death–and even starting before death–that which is material, transient, and largely personal will be taken away; this practice aims to start giving them up before they are withdrawn.  Pierre Hadot says about it:  Becoming aware of ourselves, whether in the movement of concentration on the self or in the movement of expansion toward the All, inevitably requires the exercise of death.  One might say that this exercise has been, since Plato, the very essence of philosophy.  (p. 207)

Another would be the practice of beauty, which has its roots as we’ve seen in the Pythagoreans.  Plato taught the existence of a realm of universal and imperishable beauty which was distinct from all the individual instances that we see around us.  A flower will die, but Beauty itself is eternal. He taught that one can learn to see this eternal beauty by practicing a “ladder of ascent” which began with looking at beautiful things, then contemplating beautiful actions and ideas, and on to beautiful souls, especially looking for the beauty in one’s own soul.  As he wrote in the Symposium:

For he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only–out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts which may improve the young, until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere.   (Jowett translation)

For Plato, the presence of beauty melts the heart, requires us to love, and carries us up this ladder to realization of the Ideal itself.  (More on the practice of beauty and the “ladder of ascent,” can be found in my The Ideal of Beauty.)

Another practice that seems to have been used in many schools was the practice of giving full attention, prosoche, to what is happening in this moment.  This is a technique that is familiar to many people who study Eastern philosophy, and is also the basis of practices such as those described by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now:  Ordinary consciousness is always linked in some way with denial of the Now.  The Now, of course, also implies the here.  Are you resisting your here and now?  Some people would always rather be somewhere else.  Their ‘here’ is never good enough.  Through self-observation, find out if that is the case in your life.  Wherever you are, be there totally.  

Attention to right now is a way of not allowing our perceptions to be distorted by our mental pictures of the way things should be, and influenced by our fears and hopes, our prejudices and desires.  Again to quote from Hadot:

For them (the Stoics), philosophy was a unique act which had to be practiced at each instant, with constantly renewed attention to oneself and to the present moment.  The Stoics’ fundamental attitude is this continuous attention, which means constant tension and consciousness, as well as vigilance exercised at every moment. (p.138)

And of course this means attending fully to the here and now, here and now.  Not the attention that will be there when you stop reading this.  The attention that is here, now; aware of sounds, touches, sights and a happiness that pervades them all, because perception=consciousness=bliss.  Not because these words are that interesting, but because your attention is your connection at each moment to universal consciousness and universal love.  There is no other way to reach them but through full attention.

This practice is also related to another that is mostly associated with the Stoics; that of acceptance with equanimity of whatever events and circumstances present themselves.  It is learning not to take things personally; not getting angry if things don’t go “our way,” letting go of “winning and losing,” learning to see others as not other than your own self.   It is expressed very well by a famous passage from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, from the work usually called his Meditations, but which were really Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, “Ta eis heauton” (“Thoughts to himself”) and never meant for publication:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. (II. 1, trans. Gregory Hays)

So the proper response to people like this is not anger but compassion; they possess “a share of the divine,” but are kept in the dark by their egos.  It becomes the responsibility of those who have “seen the beauty of good,” to be the conscious force in every interaction, regardless of all the attempts by the ego to diminish it.

It is also worth remembering that to other people, you may be the one to appear “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”  A saying here from perhaps everyone’s favorite Stoic, Epictetus, is in order:

You are impatient and hard to please.  If alone, you call it solitude: if in the company of men, you dub them conspirators and thieves, and find fault with your very parent, children, brothers and neighbors.  Whereas when by yourself you should have called it Tranquility and Freedom: and herein deemed yourself like unto the Gods.  And when in the company of the many, you should not have called it a wearisome crowd and tumult, but an assembly and a tribunal; and thus accepted all with contentment.  (#31)

The Stoic philosophy is sometimes criticized for being emotionally flat; that by eliminating the highs and lows of emotional experience, it is eliminating  one of the chief factors that makes us human.  But that is the point: the focus of these schools was on the component of the human which they saw as leading to the divine.  As humans, we can be dragged around by circumstances and our “passions,” always thinking that somehow there can be the highs without the lows, or that we can assure our happiness by acquiring more stuff.  Through reason, however, we can observe this process, detach ourselves from it, and begin to live in the continuous happiness of the Good, a happiness not dependent on circumstances.

Is this the way to the heavens?”  For this is what philosophy has promised me–that she will make me as God’s equal.  That’s the invitation and that’s what I’ve come for; be as good as your word.  Seneca, (p. 99)

Perhaps the most important benefit of the school environment is that of the friendship that comes from joining with others in good company and in a common pursuit.  In general, we choose our friends because of their likeness to us in age, race, political beliefs, etc.  In a school however the basis for associations is very different–it is a deeper search for meaning that brings students together.  But the surface differences do not go away, and we can find ourselves being judgmental about people who talk too much or too little, are argumentative or boring.   A school is an environment that allows us to see past these superficial differences and remember that “the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.”  It can enable us to move on to a state of kinship, of brotherhood and sisterhood, with people whom we might not ordinarily like.  The power of this kind of environment is celebrated by Cicero in recalling the Epicureans:

Epicurus says that of all the things wisdom provides in order for us to live happily there is nothing better, more fruitful, or more pleasant than friendship.  Nor did he merely declare this; he confirmed it in his actions and habits.  In Epicurus’ one little house, what a troop of friends there was, all gathered together by him!  What a conspiracy of love united their feelings!   (p. 125)

But most important is learning to be a friend to yourself, to be able to give yourself the love and good advice you would give to another.  We close with another quote from Seneca, which he begins with a quote from Hecato (ca. 100 BC):

‘What progress have I made?  I am beginning to be my own friend.’  That is progress indeed.  Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.